Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo Once Symbolized Democratic Hope—His Plan for a New Capital Represents a Darker Legacy

Government facilities under construction at the forthcoming new national capital Nusantara in Penajam Paser Utara, Indonesia, on Sept. 21, 2023. Credit - Dimas Ardian—Bloomberg/Getty Images

When Joko Widodo, popularly as Jokowi, was sworn in as Indonesia’s seventh President in 2014, optimism surrounding the state of democracy in the country seemed at its peak. At a time when dynasties traditionally dominated Indonesia’s political arena, the ascension of Jokowi, who was a carpenter and furniture businessman before becoming the governor of Jakarta, was hailed as a beacon of hope.

Jokowi’s election almost 10 years ago represented “the height of democracy in Indonesia,” Vishnu Juwono, associate professor in public governance at the University of Indonesia, tells TIME. “He was seen as an outsider, and he’s benefited from the democracy system.”

But as the curtains fall on Jokowi’s decade of rule, he may be remembered more for ushering in a new era of democratic decline. Even his capstone initiative, what was meant to be a sprawling monument to his legacy—the development of a new capital called Nusantara, to replace the existing capital in Jakarta beginning as soon as next year—looks to embody such a backsliding.

Indonesia's President Joko Widodo speaks about the planned new capital Nusantara, at Ecosperity Week in Singapore on June 7, 2023. <span class="copyright">Edgar Su—Reuters</span>
Indonesia's President Joko Widodo speaks about the planned new capital Nusantara, at Ecosperity Week in Singapore on June 7, 2023. Edgar Su—Reuters

Since it was announced in 2019, the ambitious project to relocate Indonesia’s capital from the island of Java to the island of Borneo has been mired in skepticism and criticism—from inadequate public consultation to land disputes with indigenous communities to concerns about Chinese investment that critics say is making Nusantara a “New Beijing.” But a more insidious implication, observers caution, is the undemocratic nature that the new capital, tucked hundreds of miles away from Jakarta and set to operate without elected local leaders, will bring to the fore of what is currently the world’s third largest democracy.

While Indonesia’s current capital, which houses 10.5 million of the country’s 278 million people, may be the epicenter of the Southeast Asian nation’s economic activity, over the decades it has become increasingly uninhabitable. Jakarta residents regularly battle heavy traffic congestion, widespread flooding, and hazardous pollution—the metropolis was earlier this year ranked as the world’s most polluted city when thick smog shrouded its residents. The city is also sinking at an alarming rate, with some forecasters estimating that a third of its land could be submerged by 2050.

As Indonesian authorities continue to look for ways to save the existing capital, a province some 800 miles away offers a clean slate devoid of Jakarta’s woes. It’s on the lush hilly landscape of East Kalimantan that authorities decided to build the new national capital of Nusantara from scratch—hailed not just as a solution to Jakarta’s congestion and sustainability crisis but also as a crucial next step in Indonesia’s development.

“When we agree to move forward as an advanced country, the first question that needs to be answered is whether in the future, Jakarta as the capital city is able to bear the burden as the center of government and public services as well as center of business,” Jokowi said in 2019 as he reignited dormant plans to relocate the government.

But what Nusantara represents is not so much a solution as a distraction, civil society groups and academics argue. Local authorities have long dragged their feet on addressing Jakarta’s urban environmental issues—even a court ruling in 2021, which found Jokowi and other senior officials guilty of negligence for the city’s air pollution, has done little to trigger reforms.

“It reflects really an escape plan of the failure of successive administrations in Jakarta to take on and manage the problems of Jakarta,” Ian Wilson, a senior lecturer specializing in Indonesian politics at Australia’s Murdoch University, tells TIME. “The problems of Jakarta will remain, regardless of Nusantara. It’s quite disingenuous, I think, to suggest that Nusantara will help solve Jakarta’s problems. It will only solve them insofar as politicians will no longer feel any obligation to deal with them or even to speak to them.”

But Nusantara doesn’t just represent an avoidance of dealing with Jakarta’s troubles. It also looks set to further detach the country’s seat of government from its center of civic society, distancing decisionmakers from dissent. Jakarta has long been a stage for some of the most important moments of Indonesian politics: student-led protests led to the fall of authoritarian leader Suharto in 1998; in 2016 and 2017, amid growing religious conservatism, Islamist protests against Jakarta’s then-Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama saw him jailed for two years for blasphemy; and in 2020, protests against an omnibus law on job creation that many workers feared would curtail their labor rights led to the Constitutional Court ordering the government to amend parts of the legislation.

Similar projects in other parts of the world provide a glimpse into how new administrative capitals, built ostensibly to relieve clogged cities of their population burdens, can come at the detriment of public participation and protest. Critics have claimed that Naypyidaw, Myanmar’s notoriously desolate administrative capital unveiled in 2005 by its military regime, serves to shield the country’s military leaders from uprisings. Similarly, observers say that in Egypt, the New Administrative Capital, helmed by President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi and that has been under construction since 2015, is designed to benefit the military and the military-aligned government, in part by diminishing the significance of traditional protest spots in Cairo.

“[These] new capital cities are built as pet projects of a particular administration, but also involve a process of disentangling government from broader civil society,” says Wilson. “I think it’s very difficult to not see Nusantara in those terms, when we see the broader analysis of the last 10 years of the Jokowi administration, which has seen a real democratic decline.”

As for Nusantara—where 16,000 Indonesian civil servants, members of the military, and police officers are due to move in next year and there are plans for an eventual population of 1.9 million by 2045—how the new capital city itself is set to be run has already raised concerns among local observers. Unlike the rest of the country, which is governed by elected mayors or governors, Nusantara will be governed by a Capital City Authority helmed by chairpersons appointed by the President.

Ecosperity Week attendees view a presentation on Indonesia’s planned capital Nusantara, in Singapore on June 7, 2023.<span class="copyright">Edgar Su—Reuters</span>
Ecosperity Week attendees view a presentation on Indonesia’s planned capital Nusantara, in Singapore on June 7, 2023.Edgar Su—Reuters

“When you have this authority that runs the city and somehow it is not connected to all those people who live in that city, the notion of citizens doesn’t make sense,” Sulfikar Amir, an associate professor of sociology at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, tells TIME. He adds that Nusantara, the way it has currently been designed, will have “only tenants and users, not citizens.”

Nusantara, says Sulfikar, “doesn’t really represent the democratic system that’s supposed to be the foundation of our city governance across the country.” He says he worries, however, that “the central government will believe that this is a perfect system that should be implemented across cities in Indonesia.”

Known for his laser focus on economic growth, Jokowi has delivered the results. But under his leadership, Indonesia has also seen increased online censorship and a crackdown on critics, as well as legislative changes that critics say infringe on democratic values—such as the passage of a controversial criminal code last year that criminalized unauthorized protests or criticisms of the President.

Jokowi has also unabashedly begun fashioning his own political dynasty, having installed his family members in key state positions over the last several years. Last month, his 28-year-old son Kaesang Pangarep was named the chairman of the Indonesian Solidarity Party, a youth party, despite having no political experience. Meanwhile, Bobby Nasution, the President’s son-in-law, became the mayor of Medan in 2020—the same year that Gibran Rakabuming Raka, Jokowi’s eldest son, became the mayor of Surakarta. And just this week, Gibran was announced as the running mate to defense minister and leading presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto, after the Constitutional Court—which happens to be headed by Anwar Usman, the President’s brother-in-law—controversially ruled that 36-year-old Gibran was eligible to join the presidential ticket despite the statutory age requirement of 40.

Furthermore, out of the three presidential candidates running to succeed Jokowi, only former Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan has vocalized doubts about Nusantara. While Jokowi has remained tight-lipped about who he’s endorsing, his legacy will likely, according to current polls, be shouldered by his son Gibran and—perhaps more concerningly—Prabowo.

A former military commander, who for two decades had been condemned internationally for rights violations, Prabowo twice unsuccessfully campaigned against Jokowi for the presidency in 2014 and 2019, before Jokowi helped rehabilitate his image by appointing him to his cabinet. Long known for his vehement opposition to democratic reforms in the country, Prabowo’s ascension, observers worry, could result in an even sharper centralization of power and turn toward authoritarianism for the country.

To be sure, Jokowi has maintained his popularity throughout all these maneuvers, boasting an 82% approval rating earlier this year. But if the start of his presidency heralded high hopes for Indonesian democracy, the end of it—marked by a swanky new capital and the paving of the path for Prabowo to potentially rule from it—has mostly dampened any optimism about the direction in which Indonesia’s democracy is headed.

A construction site at Nusantara, where Indonesia is offering greater tax cuts and looser terms for land acquisitions as it struggles to attract investors to its $33 billion new capital project, in East Kalimantan province, on Mar. 8, 2023.<span class="copyright">Rony Zakaria—Bloomberg/Getty Images</span>
A construction site at Nusantara, where Indonesia is offering greater tax cuts and looser terms for land acquisitions as it struggles to attract investors to its $33 billion new capital project, in East Kalimantan province, on Mar. 8, 2023.Rony Zakaria—Bloomberg/Getty Images

“Indonesia is still a functioning democracy, this is without a doubt,” says Wilson. “But nonetheless, there have been very strong, autocratic trends, and I think Nusantara needs to be understood within that context.”

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